Sermon on Corpus Christi

“Draw nigh and take the Body of the Lord.”

We’ll be hearing that hymn sung as we make our Communion this morning. It’s a translation of the oldest known Latin eucharistic hymn, and in Ireland, where it was composed, it has a story connected with it that may well not be a matter of history but it’s still worth telling and pondering. St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, had a nephew called St Secundinus, who helped him in his mission to the Irish and who also became a bishop. One day Secundinus said to Patrick,

“The trouble with your sermons is that you hardly ever say anything about love.”

To which St Patrick replied,

“When I want your opinion of my sermons I’ll ask for it – and at the moment I’m thinking of running you over with a chariot!”

Things were not looking promising. However, shortly afterwards, Secundinus was celebrating Mass in his church when he became aware that someone had arrived in the churchyard – in fact, St Patrick. Whether he had arrived with a chariot I don’t know. But Secundinus, who had just said the prayer of consecration, left the gifts on the altar and rushed out of church to meet Patrick, and he and Patrick made up their quarrel there and then, and embraced. And when they’d done that, they heard angelic voices singing from inside the church, singing (in Latin of course) today’s Communion hymn:

“Draw nigh and take the Body of the Lord,
And drink the holy Blood for you outpoured.”
So the two of them went into church together, and that was what they did.
“And so,” says the author who wrote down that legend in the 1100s, “from that time to the present, that hymn is chanted in Erinn when the Body of Christ is received.”

Draw nigh … At a Prayer Book Eucharist, and sometimes at a Common Worship one, we hear the words “Draw near with faith…” and perhaps those words were echoing in John Mason Neale’s mind as he translated that hymn – the Latin says, “Come, O holy men”, but Neale’s translation “Draw nigh and take…” seems to me to underline our sense that as the two holy men have once again drawn near to each other, so the Lord is waiting for them at the altar and His angels are inviting the two of them, together, to draw near to Him. Draw near.

And perhaps we hear those words often enough to lose sight of how astonishing they are. Last Sunday we were hearing about Isaiah in the temple, seeing the Lord on His throne and quite expecting that that would be the end of him – “Woe is me! I am lost…” And yet here we are today, in the Lord’s throne-room – for indeed that’s where we are – and this is his invitation – he is inviting us to draw near, to take and eat, to receive His life into ours.

Well, we know, don’t we, what makes the difference? Human beings in all ages – not surprisingly – have always been conscious of a gap of some kind between themselves and the divine – very often a moral gap – and they offered sacrifices as a way of trying to bridge that gap. But the trouble is that in the nature of things, that gap can’t be bridged from our side. What God has done for us in Christ is to put things into reverse – to bridge the gap from his side by offering himself on the Cross – “himself the victim and himself the priest”. My blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for many.

And the Church continues to obey his command and DO THIS, not as a memorial service for a dead hero, but to make present that sacrifice here and now. Which means that we can draw near to Him – He wants us to. As another eucharistic hymn says, “So may we well approach Thee, If Thou wilt be the way.” He gives us a meeting-place with Him where we can draw near, and be healed, restored, forgiven, with just the same immediacy as the people were who drew near to Him during the days of His earthly ministry – the woman who crept up to Him in the crowd to touch His garment, Zacchaeus scrambling down out of the tree. And today, as we give our Lord particular thanks for His gift beyond words, the best, the most significant way we have of giving thanks is by simply DOING THIS: offering this Eucharist – this our Sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

But I’d like to suggest that there are other ways as well in which we can thank Him for this gift beyond words, for this invitation to draw near. I’m going to suggest just three.

One lovely English saint of the 14th century, Dame Julian of Norwich, gives us a word of advice:

“Our courteous Lord willeth that we be as homely with him as heart can think or soul can desire. But we must beware lest we take this homeliness so recklessly as to forsake courtesy.”

A gracious invitation from royalty isn’t a thing to be treated casually – as in “Well, I might turn up if I happen to have time, if I happen to feel like it, if I’m not doing anything else”. Our Lord requests the pleasure of our company, and because He is so gracious and loves us so much, it is a pleasure to Him – but we are not exactly doing Him a favour if we say yes. As with many other things in our Christian lives (saying our prayers, reading our Bibles, going to Confession), it makes sense to have a rule and stick to it – though when something exceptional happens, I can of course remember that the rule is made for me, not I for the rule.

Many of us recently have had our lives well and truly disrupted by Covid and the precautions that we have had to take – but now could be a good time to take stock – to thank God for the ways He has given us of keeping in touch with Him through prayer at home, through reading, through online worship, to work out regular ways of continuing with something of that rhythm, but also, unless we have serious health concerns, of returning joyfully and thankfully, drawing near in person, drawing near to one another also, to meet Him, together, at His altar here in church. Having a rule isn’t some kind of soulless mechanical business – it is, or it should be, a way of saying thank you to God.

Another way to thank Him arises out of that. Of course when He invites us to draw near, we can say “Just as I am… O Lamb of God, I come” – but since that is what we are going to do, we need to stop for a moment and remember that what He is doing is so important to Him – we are so important to Him – that He has written this invitation in His own blood. And so, if that is important to us, it isn’t being negative or morbid to take a look at just how we are, to tell Him just where we know we’ve gone wrong, and to ask for His help. We get a few moments to do that at the beginning of every Mass – but it’s better still to spend a little time also the night before. And to think also, quite carefully, of all the blessings of this life, great and small, which are also part of how we are, that we can bring back to Him with thanksgiving in the morning.

And a third way of thanking him, which brings us back to St Patrick and St Secundinus perhaps: Our Lord invites us us to draw near to Him, and he wants us also to draw near to one another – to show as individuals, and as a church, the welcome and hospitality that He shows to us. By the one Spirit we are all baptised into one Body, and if we are the Body of Christ on earth, He expects us to show our thankfulness for His love by loving one another – obviously – and also, very important, by offering the same kind of welcome as He does to those who come just as they are. Every now and then one hears some horror story about a supposedly Christian congregation in which someone was made to feel unwelcome because of social background, or orientation, or cultural background, or skin colour. Don’t let us ever give cause for any such story to be told about us at St Michael’s. In the wake of Covid, there will be people wanting to explore, wondering if this life is all there is, wondering whether anyone is listening if they can bring themselves to pray. Some of them will have seen us online; some of them will put their heads round the door. It’s up to us to say, as our Lord is saying to us, Draw near.

As I was writing this sermon, I found it was threatening to get overloaded with quotations. That’s just an occupational hazard if one talks about the Holy Eucharist – because after all, two thousand years of Christians now in heaven have had things to say about it, and countless Old Testament saints now in heaven rejoice in the complete vision and understanding of the direction in which their own sacrifices were pointing. And as they sustain us with their prayers, we too are invited today, with particular thanksgiving, to join in their worship – with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven. We too are invited to Draw near.